What happened in early Christianity between A.D 180-311?

I am going to assume that you did not choose these dates
arbitrarily. Probably you found the starting and ending date for your
question in a book you read. Most likely, the end date for your question,
AD 311, is a reference to the edict of Toleration which was issued by
Emperor Constantine, which allowed for the free expression of religion
throughout the Roman Empire. Of course, this decree was principally
designed by Constantine to officially legalize Christianity. It is fairly
natural to divide Christian history between that which occurred before and
after the legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire. By the way,
this edict was actually issued in AD 313, not 311.

It is a bit harder for me to be sure where the date AD 180
came from. This is the time of Irenaeus and many of the famous early
Christian fathers. It was a time when persecution of Christians was still
very intense. For example, the persecutions of Marcus Aurelius affected
Irenaeus directly. Perhaps the date AD 180 is mentioned because by this
time the very last of the disciples who ever had known or met one of the
original disciples had died.

During the period AD 180-311, a lot of things were happening
in the early church. Most prominent among them, at least judging by the
writings of the early church fathers, was a fight to prevent the influence
of heretical teachings about Jesus. Amongst the heresies strongly opposed
by the mainstream church in this time were Montanism, Gnosticism, Arianism
and others. I will let you do your own research into these topics, but
all of these groups tended to deny some aspect of either the deity of
Christ or the humanity of Christ.

Another significant development in the church during this
period was the move toward a stronger heirarchical structure. What had
been a group of elders in many churches became a head biship with elders
under him. Not only that, but the larger churches had “metropolitans” who
had control over the churches in larger regions. There were several
levels of such heirarchy. During this time, the head bishop in Rome began
to claim a greater authority over all the other bishops, although few
others acknowledged such authority at this time.

There was another trend worth noting during this time. There
was a tendency to systematize and ritualize Christian practice, and a move
toward what Roman Catholics today would call sacraments (priesthood, last
rites, baptism and so forth). During this time baptism of very young
children and even infants was begun. The worship service became
ritualized, with standard prayers, readings and so forth.

Another major trend during this time was toward the practice
of asceticism. Beginning especially in North Africa, many followers of
Jesus chose to express their faith by removing themselves from society,
practicing extreme poverty and denying themselves many seemingly normal
pleasures, including marriage and family. This eventually led to orders
of monks and nuns.

Many would say that the edict of toleration under Constantine
led to the downfall of Christianity, as it led to the acceptance of
millions of people into the church who had no concept of discipleship or
sacrifice for Jesus. Those who say this have a good point. The
acceptance into membership of many who were only nominally believers in
Jesus certainly was a major factor in the move toward a worldly church,
but many of the later trends toward what many would now see as an apostate
Catholic Church were seen before AD 311, as you can see from some of the
examples above.

Because your question was ambiguous as to what issues you are
really interested in, I am not sure if I answered the real question you
have in mind, so feel free to send a more specific question.

John Oakes

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